Justice Gerald VandeWalle, Law School Class of '58, Featured in City Magazine

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School of Law


City Magazine interviewed North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice "Jerry" VandeWalle the day after his 80th birthday, which, at his request, was celebrated with minimal fanfare inside the Justice Wing of the State Capitol. There was too much brouhaha for his 75th, VandeWalle said, and, characteristic of his modesty, he didn't want a repeat.

After graduating from UND School of Law in 1958, VandeWalle accepted an appointment as Special Assistant Attorney General and spent the next 20 years in the AG's office. The Supreme Court Justice appointment came in 1978. He was elected Chief Justice effective January 1, 1993. He was reelected in 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010.

Raised with an older brother on a dairy farm near the tiny coal mining town of Noonan with grandparents, aunts and uncles nearby, VandeWalle remembers delivering milk door to door until local grocery stores installed coolers to chill the milk in bottles.

"Those cows sent me to school in more ways than one," joked VandeWalle. "It taught me that I didn't want to be a dairy farmer, and it provided sustenance for me to be able to go to school." The Belgian and Norwegian settlers in the community valued education, said VandeWalle. "It was assumed we would go to college, and most of us did."

Out of his 1951 Noonan High School graduating class of 10, two became electrical engineers, and there was also a physicist and a forester, according to VandeWalle. He credits a college teacher for kindling his interest in law.

"As an accounting major I was required to take business law," he said. "I had an instructor that was fascinating and six weeks into that course I knew—part of it was due to him, and the subject matter appealed to me."

After sitting on the court for 35 years with another 10-year term ending in 2014, VandeWalle will soon make a decision about continuing as chief justice. "For the time being, I'm deciding not to decide," he said.

VandeWalle said that the only regret he sometimes feels is never marrying. Truly, his mistress has been the law. "I'm passionate about the law," VandeWalle said. "It has been my profession and my life, and I'm lucky to have been able to do it."

CM: The Supreme Court interprets the law and writes opinions. What do you strive for when writing an opinion?

Gerald VandeWalle: Opinions are written for two reasons: number one, to decide the case; and number two, to teach for future reference, so you try to make it as clear and concise as you can. If an author happens to be an innovative writer, perhaps they can build that in. I've seen some opinions that are "too cute." Some of them have delivered them in poetry form— not from our court. That's not something I would do.

CM: What makes a good lawyer?

Gerald VandeWalle: A good lawyer represents their client to the best of their ability and does their research. From the standpoint of the appellate court, a good lawyer doesn't try to snow the court with something that isn't there, or that is there and isn't as significant as they claim it to be. It's a matter of credibility. Lawyers are dealt with the facts they are given and the use of those facts may be an indication of whether they are a good lawyer or not. When they start adding facts, you get a little concerned. Good lawyers have to be analytical, have to be able to take something apart and put it back together, and present their case. A good lawyer is both a counselor and an advocate. They counsel the client as well as advocate for the client. Lawyers that simply advocate what the client wants are not, in my view, good lawyers.